5 Tips for Learning an Artist’s Set in One Week

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you need to learn another artist’s songs quickly? I found myself there recently, when artist Shayfer James‘ drummer broke his arm. Shayfer had an important gig in a week and needed someone to fill in right away.

A few weeks have passed since the gig. Through reflection, I thought about five things that really helped to expedite the learning process. I’m posting them here in case they are helpful to you, too. Though they are written from a drummer’s perspective, some tips may apply no matter which instrument you play.

    1. All’s well that ends well.
      Learn the ending first. Does the song end with a hit, a rit., or a fade out? If it’s a fade out on the recording, how does it end in a live setting? Above all else, nail the ending.
    2. Know thy entrance.
      How does each song begin? Do you start it? Does someone else? If someone else starts it, are they relying on you to set the tempo? If so, learn the tempos cold.
      A tip: Look at the playlist of songs on your device. Without hitting the play button, quiz yourself on the entrances, tempos, and overall song style for each song. As you’re learning, test yourself by clicking the play button. Repeat until you no longer need to hit play.
    3. Gradually release yourself from the recordings.
      Listening to an artist’s studio recordings can be a double-edged sword. It’s good because you’ll hear all the parts clearly, but it’s bad for the very same reason. You’ll get used to everything you hear in the recording, which may not match up to the live performance. For instance, you might subconsciously cue off an auxiliary string part while you’re listening. Then when you’re in the first rehearsal – where there are no string parts being performed – you notice you’re getting lost in the song! How could this have happened? You were listening so closely to the recording that you missed the forest for the trees!
      The cure is to gradually ween yourself off the recordings. Stop playing the songs in your earbuds and start playing them in your brain. As you start to do this, it will reveal new gaps in your understanding. As you find these gaps, go back to the recording to fill them. Then, play back the song in your brain one more time to let it sink in.
    4. Know the quirky bits.
      If you’re playing with a good musician, he/she is going to have a unique style.
      Think: What are the signature elements that occur in their songs? Does he like to use lots of starts and stops? If so, learn those cold. Does she tend to gradually build each song into a climax? In that case, be sure you are paying extra attention to your dynamics.
      Each artist will be different, but the key is to figure out those signature elements. Then, figure out the parts of your playing style that best complement those elements. Adjust as needed, but stay grounded in reality. With only one week to learn the tunes, you won’t be able to duplicate every last fill in the recorded performance. Nor should you have to. No one in the audience will be looking for that anyway. If you complement the artist’s unique style, you’ve done a good job.
    5. When it comes time to perform, don’t think about any of the tips above.
      Sure, obsess like crazy leading up to the gig. But when it’s time to perform, focus on connecting with the other musicians on stage. Focus on creating a good experience for your audience. No one is looking for an exact replication of the recording. They want an experience. And the experience you provide by creating a true connection with the musicians on stage will far exceed an error-free performance that may be technically perfect but does not connect on any other level.

Hope you found these helpful!